Mary Doria Russell, "Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral" (Ecco Books, 2015)

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The Wild West of Zane Grey and John Wayne movies, with its clear divisions between good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians (never called Native Americans in this narrative), bears little resemblance to the brawling, boozy refuge for every Civil War-displaced vagabond, seeker of gold (copper, tin, silver, oil), and would-be financier that once constituted the US frontier. In two novels about Doc Holliday and his friends the Earps, Mary Doria Russell pulls back the curtain to reveal the social, economic, and political divides that in the 1870s and 1880s kept the land beyond the Mississippi a hotbed of lawlessness and vice mixed with occasional acts of heroism. Doc begins the story in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1878. Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral (Ecco Books, 2015) continues it a few years later in the Arizona Territory, focusing on the events leading up to and the aftermath of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Tombstone, Arizona, is an example of everything right and wrong on the frontier. The silver mines have made huge fortunes for the businessmen and speculators who have flocked to town, especially in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873—a recession as, if not more, dramatic than that of 2008. The flood of money into politics has had its usual corrupting effect, and tension is brewing between those from the postbellum South seeking a better future and entrepreneurs arriving from the North. Cattlemen and gamblers, miners and ladies of the evening, thieves and lawmen—Tombstone has them all. So when the Clantons and their friends the McLaurys decide that the Earps and Doc Holliday are the source of their troubles and, after a long night of drinking, set out to even the score, thirty seconds of violence become a touchstone for both sides of what was wrong with the other.

But that was not the end of the story. Tombstone had "legs," as journalists say, becoming a symbol of the Wild West at its wildest. Here, in Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell recovers the story behind and beyond the gunfight, with compassion for those who saw their lives changed by it, whether they stood with the Earps or against them.

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C. P. Lesley

C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and four other novels. Her latest book, The Merchant's Tale, co-written with P.K. Adams, appeared in November 2023.

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